CHILLICOTHE, Ohio (WCMH) — He was the first person to be reported missing from Ross County during World War II, and he’s one of the last to come home.
Musician 1st Class Joseph W. “Hope” Hoffman of Chillicothe went down with the USS Oklahoma the morning of Dec. 7, 1941, at Pearl Harbor.
He never saw active combat.
Taken by surprise
“The tragedy is that he didn’t go off to war,” said Lt. Col. Robert Leach (retired, U.S. Army), the commissioner for the Ross County Veterans Commission. “He went to Hawaii during peacetime in 1940 as a member of the USS Oklahoma, one of the large battleships.
“He was actually a musician and part of the band on the USS Oklahoma. The USS Oklahoma was torpedoed multiple times and capsized.”
Sent below decks
Hoffman was preparing to play The Star-Spangled Banner when warning bells went off.
“He and other members of the band were actually on the deck of the ship preparing to play the national anthem at 0800. The attack started at about 0755,” Leach said. “One of the surviving members of the band recalled seeing strange planes, hearing explosions, hearing the announcement: ‘Air raid, battle stations.'”
Battle stations for the band was below decks to help pass ammunition to the guns.
“So Joseph and other members of the band made their way into the ship,” Leach said. “That ended up sealing their fate because when the ship capsized, they were trapped below decks, and Joseph was never heard from again.”
From mass grave to identification
Hoffman was always considered the first casualty of WWII from Ross County because his parents were the first to receive a telegram from the War Department announcing that their son was missing in action, and later presumed dead, Leach said.
“When the Oklahoma was righted about two years later, the Navy recovered the remains of the crewmen, but at that time, they were so comingled, they were beyond recognition. 1940s technology did not allow for identification, so they were buried in mass graves in Hawaii in the military cemetery.
“Fast forward a number of decades, and DNA analysis allows for the Department of Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, which was armed with a roster of who was on the ship, to exhume the mass graves and be able to, one by one, identify almost all of the 429 sailors and marines who were missing when the ship capsized,” Leach said.
A long journey home
After the war, American Legion Post 757 was named in Hoffman’s honor.
“It’s very rare that members of a veterans’ club named after somebody who was killed in the war are then able to attend the funeral of that person they’re named after. Normally, the death happened years before, and any funeral that might have happened,” Leach said.
Hoffman’s remains will return to his hometown the weekend of Aug. 19, three days of a hero’s welcome that his parents never lived to see.
The family will finally be reunited at the plot, with Hoffman’s brother, sister, and parents. His closest living relative, a first cousin, twice removed, from Texas will attend.
“When Joseph is buried there next Saturday, finally, after 81 years, the family will be reunited,” Leach said. There will be a rifle volley, the folding of the flag, and Taps. “We need to become the community and the family now that so little of his actual family is left.”
Three days of events
Friday, Aug. 19: Open house at the American Legion Post, 757 Cooks Hill Road, noon to 8 p.m. History, activities, and food. Ceremonies begin at 3 p.m. Family friendly. Public welcome. High school band, ROTC drill, flag retirement from Ross County Veteran’s Honor Guard.
Saturday, Aug. 20: East Main Street exit at U.S. 23 will be the staging area; meet at 10 a.m. Hearse followed by the U.S. Navy Honor Guard, followed by the family, WWII veterans, veterans organizations, and the general public.
The fire department will have ladders up for the procession at the Ross County Courthouse.
Burial procession to arrive at Main Street exit in Chillicothe at 10:20 a.m. Down Main to Walnut, right on Walnut to Yoctangee. Stop at Veterans Memorial Park, Yoctangee Parkway, 11 a.m. Memorial after the ceremony, procession to Greenfield, where the U.S. Navy will conduct graveside services and burial in the family plot.
Sunday, Aug 21: Memorial services at Tyler United Methodist at 11 a.m. Then 1-5 p.m., Grandview Cemetery. Members of the Chillicothe Civic Theatre bring stories of the 44 war dead — going back to the Mexican War — buried or memorialized in the cemetery.
Actors and actresses will bring to life the stories of 10 people’s graves through the Notable Souls Tour. The Joseph Hoffman story will be featured at the event. Tickets: $10 on site.